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Laughter and Learning

Photo by Riley Nelson

I’d been in university classes from 9-5. It’d been a long day. I had a few minutes to come home, eat dinner, and then I was off to a CPR class scheduled from 6 to 9. Stresses had been accumulating in my life, the least of which were school finals coming up. The last thing I wanted to do was sit and waste away in a boring, redundant, three hour CPR class. I, obviously, was not in the brightest mood, so on my bike ride to the fire station, I decided to listen to the comedian Mitch Hedberg. The past year or so, dealing with different fluctuations in anxiety, I’ve found one of the surest things to help is comedy.

One headphone bud in, one dangling down, I chuckled and pedaled my way over to class. I was feeling slightly better, but memories of every other CPR classes I’d taken did not make the next three hours seem promising. I walked into the little trailer in which the class was being held and was greeted by a grinning man. As we were waiting for the other students to arrive, he rattled off jokes and pulled up funny YouTube videos about CPR. The next few hours ended up actually being engaging, enlightening and entertaining—by far the best CPR instruction I’d ever been given. Even though I’d already sat through 8 hours of class that day, I was alert and attentive thanks to his relatability and positive energy. He knew that the material was something we’d likely heard before (and that it could be as boring as sitting in line at the DMV), and he did what he could to make it as useful as possible. In addition to the required dry instructional videos made in the 80s, he also shared funny, relevant video clips to help us remember information. He incorporated humorous anecdotes. He listened to what we had to say and joked around with us.

I ended up writing a thank-you letter to the fire station later that week, because I was just that grateful for a positive experience. (I feel ashamed to say, even though I’d been given the CPR spiel many times, I’d never felt confident knowing exactly what it did or how to perform it…something about the Bee Gees’ song “Stayin’ Alive” and putting your mouth on some stranger’s mouth…I didn’t know). Maybe it was because I’d been pondering the value of humor right before class, or maybe it was because my expectations were so low, but I was deeply impressed. I think of educator-researcher Mary Kay Morrison’s word for what I experienced: humorgy. In her book, Using Humor to Maximize Learning: The Links between Positive Emotions and Education, Morrison defines humorgy as “the energy that comes from joy and laughter and humor, optimism” (Morrison, 2008). I could feel the small fire station trailer was filled with it from the moment I stepped inside, and it made an impact.

So should humor be seriously considered as something to be actively incorporated into the educational experience? If so, why? And how?

How It Works

Harvard’s article “Humor, Laughter and Those Aha Moments” delves into the brain mechanics of how humor actually works, including all of the different parts of the brain used to process it (2010). It’s explained that upon simply hearing the beginning of a joke, the “brain springs into action. The path of neuronal activity is a complex one that enlists various brain regions: the frontal lobe, to process the information; the supplementary motor area, to tap learned experience to direct motor activities such as the movements associated with laughter; and the nucleus accumbens, to assess the pleasure of the story and the reward that the ‘aha!’ brings. When the punch line hits home, your heart rate rises, you jiggle with mirth, and your brain releases ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and an array of endorphins.” With a deeper look into brain mechanics we can immediately see the potential benefits of using humor in the learning environment!

Increased Cognition

We see one advantage of humor hit right at the core of education: learning. Like I saw in my CPR experience, humor is a way to engage and involve students in the process. Multiple studies have measured and found substantial evidence for this: through 40 years of classroom research, they found humor has substantial benefits to attention levels and interest (Weimer, 2013); in 2006 researchers found that retention is strongest from lectures with content-related humor (Garner); an article entitled “How Laughing Leads to Learning” quotes PhD psychology professor Randy Garner saying that “well-planned, appropriate, contextual humor can help students ingrain information” (Stambor 2006); according to Hackathorn, et al., using humor to teach material “significantly increased students’ overall performance on exams, particularly on knowledge and comprehension level quiz items” (2011).

Scientists explain this by telling that the brain’s reward center is activated by humor, which rouses goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory (Henderson, 2015). Mary Kay Morrison explains that this is the precise reason marketers use humor in advertising: to help keep their product in our memory. She looked at brain scans that showed high levels of activity in multiple areas of the brain when humor was used in conversation and instruction. Quoting Morrison, “We’re finding humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom. In other words, if you’re listening just auditorily in a classroom, one small part of the brain lights up, but humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.”

Social Benefits

The aid of humor not only benefits intellectually, but socially. In her article "My Loose Is Tooth! Kidding around with the Kids,” teacher-author Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld says that teachers who implement humor in their classrooms have fewer classroom problems.

After telling my friend Joey about this blog post I was working on, he told me about his AP Calculus experience in high school. He really really didn’t like math, but the two teachers had wonderful senses of humor which they incorporated into the learning experience. They constructed fun assignments (like using equations to draw pictures on a calculator and then hanging them up along the walls the way you do kindergarten art) and having a large celebration of Pi Day with actual pie. Joey said that around 95% of students passed the AP exam each year and that there was “a really positive culture that made learning seem much less tedious.”

Just from observation, one can see that humor boosts participation and motivation to learn. It makes professors more approachable when you know that they’re not high-position robots. According to a paper from Harvard, laughter may have predated human speech by millions of years, in order to provide an “emotional context” for interactions, a way of to understand the intentions of those around them (2010). This makes sense to me, because humor allows me to lower my guards and trust those around me more. Mary Kay Morrison says that this trust is “necessary for collaborative learning” and that through this humor-built trust we can “build safe communities” (2008).


This community and trust allows inhibitions to be freed and creativity to take place. We all know what it feels like to be in a tense situation: all of your attention is devoted to whatever is causing the threat and the last thing on your mind is innovation. But when you can relax and feel safe, it’s easier to be vulnerable and try new things, ideas, tactics. According to researchers studying the role of laughter in human development, when humor is employed, “the children’s creative ability to break through rigid sets grows and blossoms” (Addyman & Addyman, 2013). Joking around gives others permission to joke around too, and explore the uncharted courses of interaction and idea.

Improved Life

And when you’re doing better academically, socially and creatively, your quality of life is obviously increased! Humor makes things more enjoyable, satisfying, interesting.

In their paper “The Highly Important Role of Laughter in Early Development Has Until Now Been Underestimated,” Addyman & Addyman also explain that humor has been proven to help in healing processes and aid in dealing with stress. In their study for tertiary students, one group states that “Competition among learners, feeling less proficient, inability to follow instructions, serious nature of classroom, not knowing what to do, being afraid of answering questions, fear of making mistakes, being a subject of laughter, feeling of failure, and so forth can cause differing levels of anxiety for different learners” (Celik, 2004).

This has been my personal experience. Addyman and Addyman say that “given our culture’s high-pressured and goal-oriented education system,” that should come as no surprise (2013). As an introvert in a highly-extroverted society and educational system, being surrounded by a plethora of students in a boxed-in classroom, sometimes being required to comment or share thoughts in a gathered group, or perform a problem with anyone else watching, I freeze. I am not comfortable in those situations, and I consequently don’t do well. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain says, “At school you might have been prodded to come ‘out of your shell’—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and that some humans are just the same.” Needless to say, reading Cain’s words has provided comfort for me and many introverts alike.

Working on this post got me thinking back through my years of education, reflecting on each teacher I’ve had and ways they incorporated humor. I ended up writing an email to one of them, thanking him for the light-hearted atmosphere he created in his classroom. What made me think of Dr. Petersen was remembering presentations I’ve had to give and which ones I’ve been the least stressed about. The ones I gave in his classrooms were definitely among my favorite, and I believe that’s because his humor put us all at ease. He didn’t ever use his joking to embarrass or belittle us, as others have. He did it to encourage and include. Among the literature I read researching this, most of them mentioned rapport. I looked this up and the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a friendly, harmonious relationship; especially a relationship characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.” That so accurately describes Dr. Petersen’s classrooms.


So if humor is so beneficial, how in the world do you begin to employ it? Hearkening back to the Harvard article, it’s stated that, “Jokes work because they defy expectations. The surprise aspect of these tales kicks in the frontal lobe’s search for pattern recognition” (2010). Addyman & Addyman make the point that “Most definitions of humor make reference to incongruity and unexpected outcome as core elements” (2013). They suggest simple things like saying things wrong, opposite, or backwards: this captures attention, develops analytical skills and confidence in expressing what is actually true, and drives the point home. This would need to be used carefully so as not to further confuse students; they suggest doing this with material they’ve already been taught and would be clearly wrong.

Speaking of what not to do, this is what helpful humor is not: depreciating, distracting, or inappropriate. Thinking of one of my current classes, the humor has gotten out of control. The students will not stop shouting out puns at every chance they get. I am a fan of puns myself, and they do relate to what the teacher says, but it gets the whole class chatting and laughing while the lesson is derailed for several minutes. The teacher never attempts to stop it. This is a perfect example of the damaging effect that humor can have if misused. Instead of being beneficial, it has the opposite effect. Ohio University psychology professor Mark Shatz says that “Professors’ jobs are to educate, not to entertain. But if humor can make the learning process more enjoyable, then I think everybody benefits as a result” (Stambor, 2006). Throughout the literature, it’s also suggested to simply use humor as you feel comfortable; forcing it doesn’t quite yield the same results.


The lesson here is that laughter leads to learning! Constructively used, it can aid in so much more than mere feel-goods. Zac Stambor summarizes it well by saying that using laughter enables utilization of students’ “multiple intelligences and learning styles” (2006). It benefits them cognitively, socially, creatively, and humanly! So if you’re looking for a way to improve your teaching, a way to shake things up, to make it more enjoyable and productive, try a laugh.


Addyman, C., & Addyman, I. (2013). The science of baby laughter. Comedy Studies, 4(2), 143-153.

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. New York: Crown.

Celik, M. (2004). Humor: What can it do for tertiary students? Hacettepe University Journal of Education, 27, 59-66.

Chenfeld, M. B. (1990). My loose is tooth! Kidding around with the kids. Young Children, 46(1), 56-60. Retrieved January 27, 2018.

Garner, R. L. (2006). Humor in pedagogy: how ha-ha can lead to aha! College Teaching, 54(1), 177-180.

Hackathorn, J., Garczynski, A. M., Blankmeyer, K., Tennial, R. D., & Solomon, E. D. (2011). All Kidding Aside: Humor Increases Learning at Knowledge and Comprehension Levels. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(4), 116-123.

Henderson, S. (2015, March 31). Laughter and learning: humor boosts retention. Retrieved from

Humor, laughter, and those aha moments. (2010). The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter, 16, 1-3.

Jonas, P. M. (2009). Laughing and learning: an alternative to shut up and listen. Lanham, MD: R&L Education.

Levine, J. (1972). From the infant's smile to mastery of anxiety: The developmental role of humor (Rep.). Honolulu, HI: American Psychological Association.

McNeely, R. (n.d.). Using humor in the classroom laughter has the power to fuel engagement and help students learn. National Education Association.

Morrison, M. K. (2008). Using humor to maximize learning the links between positive emotions and education. Lanham, MD: R&L Education.

Stambor, Z. (2006). How laughing leads to learning. Monitor on Psychology, 37(6), 62-62.

tvoparents (Producer). (2009, March 9). How humor affects learning [Video file]. Retrieved from

Weimer, M. (2013, February 1). Humor in the Classroom: 40 Years of Research. Retrieved February 24, 2018, from